Overweening Generalist

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Philip K. Dick's Been Dead For 30 Years and I Don't Feel So Hot Myself

30 years and nine or ten days ago, Philip K. Dick died.

But first let me tell a little anecdote from the annals of neuroscience. One of the giants of 20th century behavioral neurobiology, Norman Geschwind, a great generalist, was teaching at Harvard. He'd developed many pathbreaking theories about localized functions and neurological diseases. One day a hotshot resident saw a new patient, a young man. His prior diagnosis was temporal lobe epilepsy. The resident took the young man's history, noted the medications, dosages, asked him a bunch of questions, then went to Geschwind, who was with a bunch of other interns. This resident probably wanted to show up the great Geschwind, because it was Geschwind's theory that temporal lobe epilepsy was marked by four tell-tale signs: humorlessness, neophobia, hypergraphia, and an excess of interest in religion, particularly in the philosophy of religion and belief. But when the resident asked the young man with temporal lobe epilepsy if he was religious, the young man said no. The resident told Geschwind I think maybe you're wrong about TLE: He writes a lot, seems fairly serious and humorless, and afraid to try new things, but this kid says he's not religious. He doesn't fit your profile. Geschwind couldn't believe it and immediately went to meet the young patient, the other residents in tow.

Geschwind, to the young man: Are you religious?
Young man: No.
Geschwind: Why?
At this point, the young man launched into an hour-long disquisition on Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian, the problems brought up by Martin Buber in his book on God's treatment of Job, inconsistencies in The Epic of Gilgamesh, etc. He had to be stopped in his speech.

Now, back to Philip K. Dick, whose science fiction books questioned the nature of "reality" and brought up sociological questions about epistemology rather than the physics of space travel. He was often quoted as saying his one unique contribution to science fiction was the idea of the android that thinks it's really a human, which you've all seen in movies by now. (Ex: Blade Runner.) Speaking of movies: if you're reading this, thinking, "Why am I reading about some guy I've never read, or barely heard of?," you may not know it, but you're a fan if Dick, if only via the movies. See this article from Cracked, on how Dick's insanity/writing has influenced film...

Here's a variation on an old joke: A guy is being interviewed for a job and everything's going fine. The interviewer says, "Sounds good. Just one more bit of business and we're through. I have to ask you a few basic questions about mental health. Have you ever been depressed, agoraphobic, felt alienated and angry, been hospitalized for a nervous condition, used psychedelic drugs, felt a sense of depersonalization, or suffered from anxiety, vertigo and dizzy spells?"

And the applicant replies, "Hasn't everybody?"

Only with Philip K. Dick (PKD), it wasn't a joke. He'd felt all this by his late teens. He'd been hospitalized. He dropped out of Berkeley High School because of dizziness and anxiety. This was the late 1940s, and it seems likely that a well-meaning doctor prescribed PKD amphetamines in the early 1950s. By the time PKD died he'd written over 40 novels, very many short stories, essays, thousands of long letters, and a sprawling, massive thing now called The Exegesis, in which PKD tried to make sense of an overwhelmingly odd mystical experience he had in the early 1970s.

                              Vid-montage of PKD's bibliography in 2 minutes, 22 seconds

To coincide with the 30 years since PKD's death, a version of The Exegesis has finally been released to the general public. See reviews HERE, HERE, and HERE, for example. Okay, the book's release date was last November, but the buzz over it really got louder in time for PKD's death date, March 2nd. (And how the editors managed to whittle PKD's unique "book" down to only 944 pages is a marvel, but I digress...)

Since his death, PKD - once thought of as a "hyper-paranoid pulp fiction hack" - has become one of the most lucrative writers for Hollywood, his worldwide readership has flourished, and there seems no end of scholarly books and articles on him. Irony? In 1950s Cold War Unistat he'd crank out three novels per year, at three cents a word, for science fiction paperback publishers who thought of the genre as "the golden ghetto."

Note in the Slate article I link to above PKD is quoted as saying the "best psychiatrist I ever saw," Dr. Harry Bryan, told him he couldn't be diagnosed "due to the unusual life I led."

Anyone who has read a handful of PKD novels and some biographical data (I heartily suggest Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, by Lawrence Sutin, although some Dickheads will protest) cannot help but get the feeling of something unheimlich about PKD. But what was "really" going on with him, from a neurobiological standpoint?

The neurotic young man who is prescribed speed by a doctor, and who then goes on to write over 40 novels (18 in the decade of the 1950s!) while slowly coming unhinged (speed seems more than enough, right?) always seemed like the best guess. In an interview David Jay Brown did with cyberpunk founder Bruce Sterling in Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse, Sterling suggest PKD should've done psychedelics instead of speed. I think PKD's weirdness started long before that, and any drugs he did would only be self-medicating. Just my opinion, as of the date above...

PKD had about as many ideas about himself as one could possibly imagine, so if the Reader is inclined to go with that, fine. I have always thought it remarkable that so many of his friends, friends who are writers themselves, acolytes, and exegetes, seem to think the question of PKD's "disease" relatively unimportant. The fact is: he wrote some staggeringly wonderful work, and has touched the lives of untold millions.

But weirdos like myself like to ponder. I have talked to people who assumed PKD did too much acid. He's often thought of as a counterculture writer from Berkeley and the Bay Area. But according to Greg Rickman's Philip K. Dick In His Own Words, a work based on interviews with an astute admirer, PKD only took LSD "two or three times," and not until 1967. His output was already prodigious and weird before that.

Sutin discusses the possible TLE of PKD on pp.231-233 of the aforementioned biography.

Not long ago the prolific and superb non-fiction writer Clifford Pickover came out with a book titled Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives of Eccentric Scientists and Madmen, which attempts to diagnose people like Telsa, Newton, the mathematician Paul Erdos, Einstein, Theodore Kaczynski, and many others, based on the latest understandings from neurobiology. Pickover pegs PKD as having temporal lobe epilepsy, and I wish Dr. Geschwind were here to weigh in, but he died in 1984, before reaching the age of 60.

Pickover cites the hypergraphia and the philosophical religiosity (in full-flower in the just-released Exegesis), and Pickover - unquestionably some sort of genius himself, with a PhD from Yale's Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry who pours out one fascinating non-fiction book after another, have a look at his works soon, if you haven't already - hasn't totally convinced me about PKD's temporal lobe epilepsy. According to Geschwind, those with TLE also tend to be markedly humorless, and PKD seems to have had a sense of humor, amid paranoia and other health issues. He seems to have shared a few laughs with Robert Anton Wilson, and they found humor in many of the same conspiracy theories and others' theorizing about conspiracies.

Also, according to Geschwind, PKD should've been neophobic if he had TLE, and I'm not sure how to evaluate that. Certainly he had problems with agoraphobia, but he also had five wives. And he seemed fearless in trying to understand the uber-extraordinary things that happened to him, including a bizarre burglary of his house.

It could be that the problem with fitting a life into DSM-IV-like terms is to take words as things, to fall into the trap of essentialism. And to forget that almost all neurobiological oddities fall on a continuum. And then maybe PKD's "best psychiatrist" was right: PKD can't be diagnosed due to the unusual life he led...

In the end, I'm with most of PKD's "Dickhead" admirers: all this seems trivial when you wade into the Work, and what it does to You. When I picked up Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said and then most of the rest of his oeuvre, I was never the same. That was the most I could've asked of PKD, and he delivered in spades. As Sutin writes, "How far do such speculative diagnostics and groupings take us?" And then Sutin quotes William James: "To pass a spiritual judgment upon these states, we must not content ourselves with superficial medical talk, but inquire into their fruits for life."

Fruits indeed.

Philip K. Dick: READ HIM!

Lots of good audio stuff on PKD here.
"Ragle Gumm"'s blog on PKD here.
Ted Hand's blog-journal, with lots of good PKD insight, is here.
PKD's 5th wife, Tessa, blogs here.
Philip K. Dick and Religion.
An interview with PKD by Frank C. Bertrand, who follows this blog
Philip K. Dick Fan Site

Neuroscientist/Public Intellectual Dr.V.S. Ramachandran on Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (10 minutes):

7 comments:

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Another terrific blog. I first started reading a lot of PKD in 1981. I think I read The Man in the High Castle a few years earlier. Reading Dick's work lay the groundwork for my appreciation of Bob Wilson's writing. I remember finding fascinating the huge respect other sf writers had for him, especially John Brunner and Ted Sturgeon. I felt such anger towards God when Phil died, because I knew with the release of Blade Runner I'd see his books on the shelf at Safeway.

Charles Brown, editor of Locus, said that reading The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich scared him so much he couldn't look at another Phil Dick novel for ten years.

michael said...

Thanks, as always, for the kind words and for taking your time to comment, Prof. Wagner.

Re: his books at Safeway: yep. When PKD died he'd seen an early version of Blade Runner and seemed over the moon-pleased. But he died broke.

There was a time in the late 1980s/early-mid 1990s when PKD and Jane Austen seemed like the hootest writers in Hollywood.

I have this odd sense-memory of a time when my wife left for a month to visit her biological mother in Atlanta, and I lived alone with only a cat, and I had an undiagnosed health scare. Suddenly a lymph node had swelled to the size of a golfball, yet I felt okay...

The doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong, and I drove to a very bad area of LA to a gigantic hospital twice a week for tests, and all the while I was reading Radio Free Albemuth and VALIS, don't ask me why I chose those for that time. But I was in a VERY weird frame during that month, suffice.

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Interesting story, Dr. J. I haven't read much Phil Dick in recent years, but he has definitely left his mark on me. I would go through periods when I would read a bunch of his work, especially the last four novels and the interview books from his last years. I would move into a very weird head space. I guess I don't have the appetite for that head space these days. I've taught four of his books in my science fiction class. A few kids love 'em, a few hate 'em.

When I got back from Egypt in November 1994 I began my last big PKD binge. I remember sitting backstage during Nutcracker performances during the first week of December reading a different one of his books each day, in on occult sequence he recommended in an interview.

I also remember talking with Arlen Wilson about the mentals risks of reading a ton of Phil Dick a few years earlier. I enjoyed that discussion, the only long one I ever had with her.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

All of the attention Dick gets is interesting to me, because when I started reading him, he was just another SF writer who got into print with paperback originals. It's a shame he didn't live to enjoy his success.

What are you favorite PKD books? I loved "The Man in the High Castle" and "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep." "The Penultimate Truth," not so much, although it was worth reading.

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I love the final four novels: Radio Free Abemuth, Valis, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigraion of Timothy Archer. I'd consider the last one my favorite.

michael said...

@Eric: What was the occult sequence?

Thanks for that anecdote about Arlen's take on the mental health risks of reading PKD. I think it's valid.

The image I get of Nutcracker music in the background, and a person backstage reading PKD: pretty cool.

Right now I'd say my top 4 are TMITHC, Ubik, Palmer Eldritch, and Radio Free Albemuth.

The use of I Ching to structure TMITHC fascinates me.

I have a reading project - one of hundreds - to read all 18 novels from the 1950s, in sequence.

Another problem with the TLE thing - although it's for me, a better guess than "years and years of speed" which undoubtedly had an effect - is its etiology: the very strong gnostic/religious stuff doesn't come on until the early 1970s, around age 38 or 40. Why not sooner? But then, I'd guess if Dr. Geschwind were here he'd say not all TLEs fit his 4 criteria in equal measure.

@Tom: I've met plenty of really astute, brilliant, sophisticated people who don't get what the big deal is about PKD. I hazard a guess you're relatively saner than Eric and I. One thing that has always seemed striking between PKD and Pynchon: similar ideas and concerns and other similarities, but PKD's prose style doesn't shimmer like Pynch's. On every page of any given Pynch novel I find I want to stop and luxuriate in a great sentence. PKD rarely did that for me. Erik Davis - maybe my favorite PKD exegete - said TP had an "ironic distance" between himself and his characters that PKD didn't have, and that PKD's "schizoid nature" made him a "poor man's Pynchon."

FCBertrand said...

I find your post, R. Michael Johnson, one of the more lucid I've come across in a long time. And I've been writing about Philip K. Dick since the late 1970s. Even got to interview him in 1981, the year before he died. Much better than most of the obfuscatory circumlocutions that emanate from the denizens of delapidated ivory towers. Hope you will be writing more about PKD, especially for the fanzie PKD Otaku.